Intersectionality in Fashion Industry: LGBTQ+

Fashion provides one of the most ready means through which any individual can represent themselves in their everyday lives and express visual statements about what makes them unique. At some point it has blurred the gender lines, celebrated diversity, stirred societal norms, and exemplified individuality. Although the fashion world has been hugely impacted by LGBTQ+ people throughout its history, it is still far away from being all-inclusive and still has much more room for improvement. The LGBTQ+ representation in the fashion industry, or the lack thereof, has been an on-going argument younger people are still tackling. In today’s climate where the younger generation has become the front liners of political and cultural change, it is now being recognized that intersectionality is one thing fashion companies still lack. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean fashion and beauty industry have not been supportive towards the LGBTQ+ community.

The industry has always operated under the guise that it is a champion of LGBTQ+ people. They’ve always celebrated and honored the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, most might assume fashion and queer culture goes hand in hand.

The truth is fashion celebrates and is drawn to uniqueness, it has always been an expression of freedom. There is room for all sorts of creativity.

Yet inspire of this progressive reputation, how much intersectionality within the LGBTQ+ and POC members of this industry is being represented right now? And if there are enough inclusion in the industry, are they being given the same platform white people get? The fashion industry has always set the standard as to which kind of people are portrayed as desirable by the mainstream society. Their massive power and control over beauty standards is so immense that magazine companies like Vogue or Elle can easily start a beauty trend which can last for years.

However, more and more fashion brands have started embracing diversity over the years. It is not uncommon now to see models with different types of body walk down the runway, in fact the dangerous norm in the modeling industry of the “tall, skinny, white” models are slowly starting to diminish.

Over the past five years, there’s been a discernible change within the fashion industry. Last year, Tyler Mitchell shot Beyoncé for American Vogue’s September issue — the first black Gen-Z photographer to shoot a cover in the magazine’s history; The fashion brand, Opening Ceremony, transformed their Spring/Summer 2019 show into adrag show in collaboration with RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Sasha Velour; Virgil Abloh also became the creative director of Louis Vuitton — the first black man to be an artistic director at an LVMH-owned brand. Christopher Bailey, the former creative director of Burberry, dedicated his final collection for the luxury label “to the best and brightest organizations supporting LGBTQ youth around the world,” he said in a statement on Instagram.

Photo by Ussama Azam on Unsplash

The fashion industry has always set the standard as to which kind of people are portrayed as desirable by the mainstream society. Their massive power and control over beauty standards is so immense that magazine companies like Vogue or Elle can easily start a beauty trend which can last for years. However, more and more fashion brands have started embracing diversity over the years. It is not uncommon now to see models with different types of body walk down the runway, in fact the dangerous norm in the modeling industry of the “tall, skinny, white” models are slowly starting to diminish.

Over the past five years, there’s been a discernible change within the fashion industry. Last year, Tyler Mitchell shot Beyoncé for American Vogue’s September issue — the first black Gen-Z photographer to shoot a cover in the magazine’s history; The fashion brand, Opening Ceremony, transformed their Spring/Summer 2019 show into adrag show in collaboration with RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Sasha Velour; Virgil Abloh also became the creative director of Louis Vuitton — the first black man to be an artistic director at an LVMH-owned brand. Christopher Bailey, the former creative director of Burberry, dedicated his final collection for the luxury label “to the best and brightest organizations supporting LGBTQ youth around the world,” he said in a statement on Instagram.

However, most of this change in the fashion industry has been external.

“For me, an inclusive industry is not only an inclusive spread of models of various sizes and skin colours; it’s a C-suite that’s as diverse, [and] as inclusive, that has embraced different cultures,” said designer and advocate Céline Semaan, founder of fashion think-tank Slow Factory and non-profit conference series The Library Study Hall.

Photo by Zahir Namane on Unsplash

To some companies, inclusion just became a check-mark. In the last five years, consumers now increasingly want the products they buy to reflect their values. Customers value brand transparency more than anything, especially the younger generation.

And as more fashion brands come out with their PRIDE campaigns and cast POC models for their commercials, so does the people who think that this cultural shift in the industry is just a “fad”. “We’ve reached a time since 2016 where the customer has suddenly become an activist,” said Semaan of Slow Factory, pointing to the election of Donald Trump in the US as a key turning point.

A chief diversity officer is now fashion’s hottest accessory this season, and brands are increasingly talking about HR initiatives to improve inclusivity in their company. But consumers and experts have remained reasonably skeptical. Is it really authentic? Is their inclusion for queer / POCs genuine? Or is it just a marketing tactic for companies to avoid getting “cancelled”?

With big fashion brands being willing to bow to consumer demand for more diverse faces, there’s near-monthly evidence that they haven’t been willing to surrender; power and bringing more voices to the table where decisions are being made. The chief executives, writers, and head designers of the world’s biggest fashion companies remain majority white, straight, and male. While companies are certainly paying closer attention to this issue — with Gucci, Chanel and Burberry hiring diversity and inclusion officers last year — real change has turned out to be slow and fraught. Last year alone, Gucci’s efforts to market itself as one of fashion industry’s most “woke” brands stumbled after it released a jumper many consumers said resembled blackface; Comme des Garçons got called out of cultural appropriation after all of their white models were sent down the runway in cornrow wigs; the fashion director of Vogue Brazil resigned after photos from her birthday party drew criticism for evoking colonial depictions of slavery; Kim Kardashian West had to change the name of her new shapewear collection after the original name, Kimono, sparked outrage in Japan; More recently, the long-time Vogue editor-in-chief and artistic director of Condé Nast, Anna Wintour, admitted to “hurtful and intolerant” creative decisions and addressed the fashion magazine’s lack of diverse representation.

Photo by Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash

That’s far from an exhaustive list of wrongdoings and clearly there’s still more work to be done, but this extensive reputational damage and its global impact suggests that brands are operating in a new paradigm. These mishaps and suspicious acts of using inclusivity as a token harms the Black, Brown, and Queer community even more.

It exploits, dismantles, and rejects the sole purpose of representation; as inclusiveness without integrity is just a marketing tactic. Inclusivity is something the fashion world can no longer ignore. “This is a white industry, and unless you are black within it, you can’t begin to understand what that is like,” Tracy Reese said, the owner of sustainable clothing line Hope for Flowers and vice chairwoman of the CFDA.

There is no quick fix or cosmetic solution to the underlying issues of the fashion industry.

For the industry to be completely intersectional and inclusive, they have to start from the inside and change the systemic racism and inequality that’s been prevalent for decades. When they allow equal access to different types of ability, not only will they make their company intersectional but it will also create an opportunity for the industry to be the forefront in spreading rightful equality, not just an image.

The demand of executive space and creative platform for the Black, Brown, and Queer people has been long-overdue and it needs to happen now.

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